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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Journal of Philology
Vol. 62, No. 2 (1941), pp222‑224.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p222  Catullus, 5, 7‑11 and the Abacus

Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,

dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,

deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.

Dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,

conturbabimus illa. . . .

The purpose of this brief note is to clarify the meaning of conturbabimus in the passage quoted. Editors​1 are agreed, and rightly so, that conturbo here means "throw into confusion," but, in my opinion, none of them has grasped or, at any rate, clearly explained the exact sense in which Catullus intends the word to be taken. Riese thinks that the confusion is to be produced by a profusion of additional kisses, "nicht mehr nach Tausenden oder Hunderten, sondern in ungeordneter Menge." Merrill's only comment on the word is "the confusion of the count is already effected in the poem by the hurrying succession of mille and centum." Ellis, Baehrens, and others refer to the phrases rationem or rationes conturbo, or simply conturbo, in the sense of "go bankrupt." But, apart from the inappropriateness of that idea to the context, it must be noted that, in the mercantile terminus technicus to which they refer, conturbo is used either absolutely (so almost always, according to the Thesaurus)​2 or with the object rationes, while in our present passage it has as its object the word illa, that is, milia multa. We may note that the Thesaurus lists the present occurrence of conturbo not under the heading of mercantile expressions but under the general uses of the word​3 and so is in tacit agreement with the interpretation which I shall advance.

The ground for this interpretation is to be found in a consideration of the alternate recurrence of mille and centum in the first three lines quoted. The obvious purport of these lines is that  p223 Catullus desires a multitude of Lesbia's kisses; why, however, does he number them in alternating thousands and hundreds?

To some, it has seemed that the alternation of numbers was meant to produce the effect of a wild confusion of caresses; so Riese and Kroll. Merrill, as we have seen, believes that the hurrying succession of mille and centum has the effect of confusing the count. The elaborate explanation of Baehrens, based on the alternating waves of the sea, is so far-fetched as scarcely to merit consideration.

In so far as they imply that Catullus is attempting to impart a sense of confusion by his alternation of mille and centum, the interpretations of Riese, Kroll, and Merrill seem to me to have been formed without due regard for the procedures of Roman arithmetic. Catullus pretends to be keeping an account of the kisses which he receives; it is natural, therefore, for him to think in terms of Roman methods of addition and to choose his words accordingly.

In calculations running into the thousands, whether concerned with kisses or with more prosaic commodities, the Roman habitually used a counting-board, or abacus.​4 In its simplest form, the Roman abacus consisted of a board marked with vertical lines, separating the surface into several columns. If, for simplicity's sake, we disregard the spaces used for fractions, we may say that the column on the extreme right denoted units, the next column tens, the next hundreds, the next thousands, and so forth. Addition was accomplished by the use of pebbles (calculi), each of which counted one when placed in the units column, ten when placed in the tens column, and so forth.​5 Counting by single thousands and hundreds, then, far from being a confusing or elaborate procedure, would be a simple  p224 matter of placing single pebbles alternately in the fourth and third columns from the right.

According to my interpretation, then, Catullus thinks of himself as keeping score of Lesbia's kisses on an abacus. First a pebble in the thousands column, then one in the hundreds, then another in the thousands, and one in the hundreds, and then, when the thrice-told tale is done, the lovers shake the board violently (conturbabimus), the pebbles fly in all directions, and the score is forever obliterated.

Conturbo in this passage is thus used in its proper sense of a violent physical disturbance and is not to be listed among the more attenuated uses of the word. I shall conclude with the remark that Kroll's note, which compares the Greek φυρᾶν τὰς ψήφους, may perhaps be taken as anticipating my interpretation; but Kroll does not make this explicit, nor does he connect it with the alternation of mille and centum, to which, as we have seen, he attributes a far different connotation from that which I have suggested.

Harry L. Levy.

Hunter College of the
City of New York.

The Author's Notes:

1 E. Baehrens, Catulli Veronensis Liber (Leipzig, Teubner, 1885); R. Ellis, A Commentary on Catullus (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1876); W. Kroll, C. Valerius Catullus (2nd ed., Leipzig, Teubner, 1929); E. T. Merrill, Catullus (Boston, Ginn, 1893); A. Riese, Die Gedichte des Catullus (Leipzig, Teubner, 1884).

2 S. v. conturboII, 3.

3 S. v. conturboI.

4 See A. Nagl, Die Rechentafel der Alten (Vienna, Hölder, 1914 = Sitzb. der K. Akad. der Wissen. in Wien, Phil.-hist. Klasse, CLXXVII [1914], Abh. 5), especially pp15‑18. See also Pauly-Wissowa, R.-E.I, cols. 5‑10, and Supplementband III, cols. 9‑10.

5 A more elaborate abacus had grooves in which buttons moved back and forth, but the principle was the same. See the articles cited in the preceding note. A similar instrument, the soroban, is in current use among the Japanese: see C. G. Knott, "The Abacus in its Historic and Scientific Aspects," in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, XIV (1886), pp18‑71.

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